April 14, 2003.
It’s a date arched in the darkest corner of my mind. The day that forever changed my life.
I was seven years old at the time, a first grader at a Catholic school in my home region in Northeast Pennsylvania. The previous day, my parents noticed that I wasn’t my usual self. Back then I was super energetic (and I still am…at least, at hockey games), but I recall spending the whole day laying down fatigued as all hell. But that day, that Monday, was where things…got bad. And life-threatening.
I woke up and started to get ready for school, sitting down to eat breakfast (which I vividly remember being Berry Burst Cheerios) looked just as fatigued as the day before despite getting (on paper) a good night’s sleep. I was a ghostly pale, and began to throw up. This alarmed my mom, who took me to a hospital in Scranton (~40 minutes away) thinking I had the flu.
It was much, much worse. My blood sugar was in the 900s. That sheer fatigue and sickness came from hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), not the flu. I was immediately diagnosed with diabetes, and things were serious. So serious that they wanted to airlift me to a hospital in Danville, a town about 60 miles southwest, but couldn’t – my organs were shutting down. I was basically in a coma at this state. Two days later came a near-death experience. I’d basically be in the hospital for about three weeks, with the exception of one weekend where I was sent home but wound up going back after some issues with low blood sugar.
When I came back to school after hospitalization, everything had changed. I was basically blacklisted from hanging out with people outside of school since no one wanted to deal with my diabetes (there was no education at that young of an age, and many of the parents had grown up in a time where we didn’t know as much as we do now). My childhood was basically over. It’s why I’ve long struggled in social situations. It wasn’t until midway through high school when I started regularly chilling with my friends outside of school again.
So what does this have to do with hockey? And why am I posting this now?
Well, growing up in NEPA, the big attraction in town was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. They came into town when I was three years old, and from the time I was five I was going to games, although I was more of a baseball fan back then (and really for much of my early childhood when it came to sports).
But I’m going to talk about one player on the team in 2003. His name was Toby Petersen. Petersen was a ninth round draft pick by the Penguins in 1998 out of Colorado College (see why I’m posting this now? kinda topical, I guess), where he played four years (he was NOT on the team that beat UVM in the Frozen Four semis, he came in a year later). But most importantly for this story, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of five.
At the time, Petersen was living in a house leased to him by a friend of my grandfather’s. He had heard that I’d been diagnosed, and for the better part of a year he tried to set up some sort of meet-up between us. And then it finally happened. Sometime in late April 2004, we finally got to meet, and had dinner together at a TGI Friday’s in downtown Wilkes-Barre (well, I had dessert, since I’d already eaten). That night, Petersen told me (who had been struggling mentally due to people avoiding me like I was radioactive) something that would forever change my life. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something.” He also autographed my hat, gave me an autographed game-used stick, and took a picture of the two of us, autographing that as well. All of those remain back in Pennsylvania on my old bedroom’s wall.
That’s the night that I became a hockey fan forever. A man who scored a hat trick in the NHL believed that I could do anything. You have no idea how much of a morale boost that was. In 2005, my family got season tickets to the Penguins, which we would have for eight years. I may not have had friends that I hung out with outside of school, but I had hockey to bring me my childhood memories. I saw Andy Chiodo knock out Antero Niittymaki with one punch at center-ice. I saw Milwaukee raise the 2004 Calder Cup. I saw Dennis Bonvie crack 4000 AHL penalty minutes. I went to road games in Binghamton, Bridgeport, Hershey, and Philadelphia. I saw Tim Brent score in the last minute of a Game 7 to send WBS to the Calder Cup Finals. I watched countless future NHL players play for and against the Penguins.
Toby’s retired now, calling it a career after the 2013/14 season – which, coincidentally, was also my senior year of high school. He became a coach, and was an assistant on the Lake Erie team that won the 2016 Calder Cup and included former UVM captains Jaime Sifers and Mike Paliotta.
Ultimately, it’s because of Toby that I’m a huge hockey fan to this day. And this weekend, his alma mater comes to Gutterson.